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Fans see tough loss to end North State's run

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North State players and coaches huddle after falling in the United States championship game of the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa., on Saturday.

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By JORDAN ANDERS
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, August 26, 2017

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — For almost five full innings Saturday, Greenville North State looked like it was cruising to a berth in today's Little League World Series world championship game.

Then, just like that, it was gone.

North State's players watched as Texas stormed back from a five-run deficit and nipped the Greenville squad 6-5 in the United States championship game to relegate North State to a berth in this morning's consolation contest.

That game is at 10 a.m. against Mexico and will be televised on ESPN.

That's not the contest North State had hoped for or even appeared likely to play in more than halfway through Saturday's game. It jumped out to a 5-0 lead over a Texas team it defeated on Wednesday night to reach the U.S. championship.

Instead, the team's quest to bring Greenville its first World Series title slipped away.

"They've been going so long," manager Brian Fields said. "It's going on four weeks now (of tournaments). You know, we're tired.

"But I'm so proud of them," he added, choking back tears. "I'm so proud of them."

The result left the yellow-clad contingent of North State fans stunned and dismayed as they filed out of Howard J. Lamade Stadium.

Still, the feeling was still one of pride for the fans who journeyed hundreds of miles to see the team chase a title.

Chris Young coached many of the players on the North State team when they were in younger age groups. He traveled to each of the tournaments the team played this summer on their run to Williamsport, and drove to Pennsylvania on Wednesday to follow their quest for the LLWS championship.

While Saturday's game may not have gone the way he wanted, Young said the way the players handled themselves and battled left plenty to be commended.

"It's a tough loss, but that's baseball," Young said. "Greenville should be extremely proud just because getting here is such a big accomplishment. It's the second time we've ever gotten here. ... I'm glad that Greenville will be supporting them and be backing them, because they put it on the line."

Fans of all titles were in the stands rooting for the local team. Mayor Kandie Smith made the trip Friday night and was in attendance, lauding the players' ability to get behind each other and put in the work to try and win a championship.

"It turned out the way I wanted because they had good sportsmanship and showed perseverance," Smith said. "They played well together and there was love and support from the fans and from the teams. This was a great experience."

Sibling bond

The Mayor of Greenville wasn't the only North State supporter who got into town Friday night. For some, Saturday's game was the culmination of a hectic 48-hour span that included an eight-hour drive to Pennsylvania and scarce time for sleep.

Makenna Matthijs, the older sister of North State player Matthew Matthijs, was forced to watch the first week of the tournament on television from North Carolina, where she spent last week attending her first week of classes at UNC Greensboro.

Once the team advanced to Saturday's U.S. final, the elder Matthijs decided there was no way she was missing championship weekend, so she and a couple of relatives made the drive up and arrived after midnight Friday night.

"There are people here wearing yellow shirts that are from Greenville that I just would not expect to be a fan of baseball in general, so it's cool to see how many people are coming to support them," she said before Saturday's game.

Makenna and her brother shared the love of diamond sports throughout their childhoods. She played softball at D.H. Conley from 2014-17 and is a freshman on the team at UNCG.

During that time, they formed a bond around their competitiveness. When Matthijs was asked what player he looked up to as part of the ESPN broadcast, the answer was easy: his sister.

In fact, North State's typically quiet leadoff hitter let a smile creep across his face when asked about the significance of his sister traveling up north to see him play.

"It's very important because she hasn't been able to be here because of school," he said Friday. "We're close. I've watched her play softball all my life, and now she wants to watch me here,"

Though she steadfastly watched and cheered for North State from college as it made its way to the World Series' final weekend, Makenna said the opportunity to see him chase a championship in Williamsport was priceless.

"I'm so proud. It's awesome," she said. "He's always been good, but to be this good and everyone in the country has been watching him and keeping up with this team, and the fact that he's been a big part of them winning with his pitching, he deserves it. He's definitely worked hard."

Late arrivals

For some, Saturday’s game was the culmination of a weeklong trip to Pennsylvania. Others pushed the clock on getting into town.

Blair Vick, her husband, Jason, and their two sons, Jack and Smith, decided they were going to be on hand to witness Greenville's shot at history. They drove up on Friday

"I thought being in Greenville and seeing the community support was wonderful, but this is wonderful on a whole new level," Vick said early Saturday. "I've had strangers come up to me because I'm wearing the team colors to congratulate us and tell us good luck. The people at the hotel were wearing our colors, so even the locals in Williamsport are supporting us.

As soon as the Greenville squad punched its ticket to Saturday, Rob Hall knew he was going to be there. Hall, a close friend of the team's coach Brian Fields, left from Laurinburg at 10:30 a.m. on Friday with his two children, Avery and Forbes.

But while others were calling hotels scrambling to find a place to stay for the weekend, Hall took the more scenic approach: he and his two children camped out in a tent about 20 miles from Williamsport.

"I think this place is magical, even if you're not a baseball fan," he said before the game. "Being able to be part of something as pure and innocent as Little League baseball. ... It's just a beautiful thing. Hard to describe. You've got to be here. What a blessing for our little town of Greenville, North Carolina to be here."

Contact Jordan Anders at janders@reflector.com, 252-329-9594 or follow @ReflectorJordan on Twitter.

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